“Voluntary” Returns: Examining the Organised Returns of Syrian Refugees from Lebanon
By Joazrina Yusof (Research Assistant) | Lebanon Support
Over the past year, returns of Syrian refugees from Lebanon have risen steadily. Of the nearly 1 million UN-registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon (a further 500,000 are estimated to be in the country informally), around 20,000 are reported to have returned. Every month, hundreds make the journey to Syria via one of the 5 official border crossings, including Jdaidet Yabous-Masnaa, Abboudieh and Al-Zamrani. According to Abbas Ibrahim, the head of the General Security in Lebanon, half of these are organized returns, while individual returns constitute the other half. The organized returns are arranged bilaterally by Lebanese and Syrian authorities, and especially prior to June 2018, have taken place without the active involvement of the UNHCR. Although the United Nations agency states that it “liaises closely with [General Security] regarding planned movements” to address any protection concerns, coordination between the UNHCR and Lebanese officials has been uneasy (given UNHCR’s reluctance to officially promote the repatriation of Syrian refugees, in light of the current situation), with UNHCR workers not always having been present at the departure points of each organized return.
Indeed, both the Lebanese and Syrian government have been eager to push forward with refugee returns, albeit with differing motivations and considerations. Lebanon, already struggling with a weak economy, as well as with inadequate infrastructure and public services, has been under strain from the influx of refugees. In this context, some Lebanese politicians have grown increasingly vocal about their support for refugee returns. Contrary to UNHCR assessments, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil insisted in August that many areas in Syria are safe, and that “refugee returns should not be tied to a political solution in Syria”. The Syrian government meanwhile, also has political and economic incentives to portray Syria as being safe for returns. After years of conflict, the Syrian regime is seeking to demonstrate its “victory” in the civil war and to signal to the international community that it has consolidated control over the country. This narrative of a stabilised Syria, ready for the repatriation of refugees, thus fits into the government’s aim of attracting foreign assistance for Syria’s post-war reconstruction – which by UN estimates could cost up to €218 billion.
Nevertheless, the unsatisfactory conditions regulating the return of refugees on both the Syrian and Lebanese sides have raised doubts over the extent to which these returns can be considered voluntary, safe and dignified. In April 2018, the European Union hosted the Second Brussels Conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”, which brought together “57 States, 10 representatives of regional organisations and International Financial Institutions (IFIs) as well as 19 UN agencies”. The consensus of the participants was that Syria was not conducive for safe repatriation. Firstly, as highlighted by Article 16 and 17 of the Brussels statement, the security situation in Syria continues to remain volatile, with a high risk of an escalation in fighting and (subsequent) internal displacement. Compounding this is the issue of forced military conscription: while the Assad regime announced in October an “amnesty” for army deserters or young men who have avoided military service, this decree only grants them an additional 6 months (for those outside Syria) after which they must report for duty or face punishment. Furthermore, the fear of reprisals prevents many refugees (who may have participated in some way in the Syrian uprising) from returning. This fear appears to be legitimised in the way that the Syrian government is handling refugee returns – refugees wishing to return must undergo a vetting procedure by first submitting their names to the General Security in Lebanon, which then coordinates with Syrian intelligence to verify whether or not these requests can be approved. While the exact criteria for approvals remains opaque, it seems apparent that anti-regime sentiments are not tolerated by the Syrian government. In fact, in November, the Lebanese Minister of State for Refugee Affairs revealed that “about 20 Syrian refugees who had returned from Lebanon had since been killed by regime forces” – a statement that the Lebanese president later sought to disprove. Therefore, the lack of transparent information and the absence of governmental assurances from Syria about the fate of returning refugees means that the risk of being arrested, detained, tortured or executed cannot be underplayed.
In addition, those who called for democratic reforms during the uprising have stated their resistance towards returning to Syria if no political transition takes place, and no justice is served for atrocities committed by the regime. Lastly, the economic and social conditions in Syria are also not conducive to ensuring the dignified return of refugees, exacerbated by policies implemented by the Syrian government. Firstly, the regime restricts access to humanitarian organizations operating in Syria (including the UNHCR which has been unable to systematically monitor returnee areas) thus undermining their ability to address the protection and humanitarian needs of returning refugees. Secondly, in May, the Syrian government passed a controversial property law (Law 10) permitting authorities to seize properties abandoned by civilians fleeing the civil war, if they did not claim them within one month (later extended to one year). This law thus effectively allows for the wholescale confiscation of properties – many property owners struggle to produce the official documents to prove their ownership after years of forced displacement, and others will be unable to return to make their claim before the specified deadline. As a result, refugees losing their properties will be unable to return to their homes, thus making repatriation a more undesirable option. Those who do return to Syria will be left internally displaced in their country.
In spite of all of the above risks, refugees in Lebanon may nevertheless be compelled to make the return to Syria because of living conditions in Lebanon. Lebanon, although not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, is bound by the customary law of non-refoulement. Therefore, the Lebanese government does not actively deport refugees. Nevertheless, living conditions for Syrian refugees are harsh, which encourages their return. This is mainly due to a host of restrictive policies, amongst others on the right to work, the suspension of UNHCR registration since 2015, as well as the imposition of complicated and expensive entry and residency procedures. Furthermore, certain municipalities have been given the liberty to impose curfews on Syrians, or even to carry out forced evictions.
Given the current political climate in Lebanon, the situation for refugees in the country is unlikely to improve. This anti-refugee sentiment can be seen from the Lebanese government’s uproar over the Brussels statement, which it claimed was a call for “veiled naturalization”. Thus, as Lebanon continues to assert the urgency of refugee returns, the “voluntary” returns of Syrian refugees can be expected to persist, even in the context of unconducive repatriation conditions in Syria.